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Joseph Hergesheimer

ISSUE:  Winter 1932

Joseph hergesheimer i believe to be the most considerable artist writing in America today. Criticism has, at any rate, accorded him altogether less than his due, and in many circles the idea still prevails of him as merely a costume novelist who would avoid the modern realities by writing about romantic yesterdays, and who, when he does venture into the present, carefully confines himself to the alcoholic or amatory activities of parasitic groups. It is a notion true in scarcely any respect. He writes of the past, certainly, and his characters in general are unlikely, while current ideas prevail, to become Sunday-school examples; but that they, and the books in which they appear, have an immediate value for the present, this essay intends to show. It is claimed for him here that in his work, regarded as a whole, he has provided a panorama of a changing and developing America, practically over two hundred years, which is unequalled in its vivid and vital rendering of the life of the successive periods. That he should have taken the very greatest pains to ensure his accuracy of historical detail is nothing; what matters is the complete success with which this scholarship appears as recreative understanding. Here are no stage properties but the authentic atmospheres of eighteenth century Delaware, Pennsylvania, Virginia, Kentucky; Louisiana in the critical days of the Purchase; Salem in the ‘thirties or ‘forties; the Northern and Southern states during the Civil War and the succeeding tragic years. More, he peoples them with figures, men and women, absolutely living; his children are notably charming—and real. He is, actually, on every plane, a realist in essence if not in method, and he can on occasion be as brutally precise as a Dreiser or Hemingway.

He has, it is true, at times given weapons to those who would accuse him of a dilettante indifference. The human being necessarily reacts against the environment inimical to the artist, and even into his confession of aesthetic faith there creeps a note of his defiance of a world of democratic standardization, prohibition, vice committees and general Bab-bittry: “I have been spared the dreary and impertinent business of improving the world; the whole discharge of my responsibility was contained in the imperative obligation to see with relative truth, to put down the colours and scents and emotions of existence”—to give permanence to beauty, create “an amber in which beautiful and fragile things are kept for ever in a lovely glow. That is all, and it is enough.” But if any think that by beauty he means no more than a self-indulging prettiness, let them read that passage in “Linda Condon” where the sculptor Pleydon shows to Linda his bronze bust of a charwoman:

It was the head and part of the shoulders of a very old woman, infinitely worn, starved by want and spent in brutal labour. There was a thin wisp of hair pinned in a meagre knot on her skull; her bones were mercilessly indicated, barely covered with drum-like skin; her mouth was stamped with timid humility; while her eyes peered weakly from their sunken depths.

“Well?” he demanded, interrogating her in the interest of his work.

“I—I suppose it’s perfectly done,” she replied, at a loss for a satisfactory appreciation. “It’s true, certainly. But isn’t it more unpleasant than necessary?” Pleydon smiled patiently. “Beauty,” he said, with his mobile gesture. “Pity, katharsis—the wringing out of all dross. . . . Haven’t you seen her going home in the March slush of a city? Did you notice the gaps in her shoes, the ragged shawl about a body twisted with forty, fifty, sixty years of wet stone floors and steps? Did you wonder what she had for supper?

, . . Well, to realise all that, to feel the degradation of her nature, to lie, sick with exhaustion, on the broken slats of her bed under a ravelled-out travesty of a quilt, and get up morning after morning in an iron winter dark—to experience that in your spirit and put it into durable metal, hard stone—is to hold beauty in your hands.”

Why then does he not write of charwomen? Art, he answers, must “rest on some universal and fundamental fact. If that fact is present the manner of representation, the materials or the style, are unimportant.” Let that “fact” be defined, and the apparent contradiction will be at least illuminated. Essentially it is in Hergesheimer’s case his sense of “the inescapable fate of the human race,” his vision of all life as “a hard-gained courage and loveliness consigned, like the vilest faults, to the same eternal blackness.” Where, in the face of that, he seems to ask, can exist the possibility of human happiness—and means thereby individual happiness, for he sets no faith in vague Wellsian dreams of the ultimate triumph of some impersonal Mind of the Race justifying all the failures, the futile lives, of the past. Consciousness is personal, and every ponderable value is born in and of an individual superiority manifesting itself as a personal vitality of being: a courage in men, a beauty in women.

Thus from the overwhelming spectacle of universal death he turns to “the heroic spectacle” of individual life, man “pinned by fatality to earth but forever struggling for release,” transcending the assaults of existence by virtue of a personal integrity, absolute, incomparable, unique. This conception of integrity, as an inward honour, an obligation of courage and character sustained to the end, which a man will defend with his life because in the last resort it is the spirit of manhood within him, is the key to any true understanding of Hergesheimer’s work. Man, for him, rises above the physical destruction of death as he prefers it to the spiritual destruction of dishonour. It is a tragic triumph; indeed, Hergesheimer’s material is essentially tragic, and that makes it, surely, only the more significant. For the destiny of man, individually considered, is tragic. In his earlier work he stressed the tragedy; in the later, by comparison, the triumph. It remains a matter of emphasis. The fundamental fact endures. Without tragedy there can be no triumph; one is the condition of the other.

A man lives: he strikes the clear note of integrity, or the cracked note of self-betrayal; he creates, or does not create, his value: the end is, in either case, “a succeeding immensity of silence.” A simple theme, and therefore most impressive when most starkly rendered. “It is only the path of pure simplicity, which guards and preserves the spirit,” Herges-heimer quoted upon the title-page of “Java Head,” and in most of his books he has followed that difficult road faithfully. How is it, then, we ask again, that the casual reader is much more likely to be struck by the luxury of his settings, the profusion of his sensuous detail, the elaborate formality of the social backgrounds, than by any appearance of simplicity? The fact is that in him the soul of a stoic is linked with the temperament of an epicurean. Spiritually he is indifferent to luxury; temperamentally it attracts him, though the influence of his more fundamental self is apparent again in the discipline of formality he imposes. “A complete formality, it seemed to me, provided a mask behind which the individual could rest, retire, unwearied.” The most striking embodiment of this idea is Taou Yuen, the Manchu wife in “Java Head,” with her elaborate dress and ceremony. “Her paint and embroidery covered a spirit as cold and tempered as fine metal.” In essence that might be said of all Herges-heimer’s protagonists.

And here, since they arise directly, from the foregoing paragraphs, we may note three good reasons at least why he tends to write of the past rather than the present. First there is his belief in value as the product of personality. In America today as in no other country except Russia, the group and the community impose their standards to eradicate individualism in every sphere. Hergesheimer’s books are essentially a protest against that tendency. He has no faith in a democracy giving power to ignorance or cunning; rather, he has grasped the higher truth that the only possible democracy is a democracy of aristocrats, of genuine individuals. He makes this acknowledgment in writing in “Balisand” “of Richard Bale, who was typical of his class and time, and not of General Washington.” Bale typified his class, but it was a class of individuals—one not easy to parallel in America today. Again, there is his admiration for personal bravery. He has no sentimental delusions about the past. The modern improvement is, he agrees, indubitable in many practical fields. He frankly confesses his disbelief that the Joseph Hergesheimer of today could have survived a single winter in the western Pennsylvania of a century and a half ago. But the gain is not absolute; it is external, and very doubtfully compensates for the loss in individuality, serenity, and courage. Men today are “sensible rather than brave.” The essential issue of integrity still lives in every man’s soul— until he kills it—but it seldom emerges as decisively or dramatically as in the starker past. Hergesheimer realises, has condemned, the bullying, murderous aspects of the duel, but the fact remains that it needed a truer courage to face for an honest statement death rather than a libel action (“anyone who will back his opinions with his life, holding his name higher, can never entirely lose his honour”), and that, moreover, such a milieu was far more pregnant with possibilities than almost any of today for one whose inspiration is an individual courage sustained to death. Lastly there is the attraction to a specifically formal background. Social formality today dissolves progressively, and when Hergesheimer deals with the present, as in “Cytherea” or “The Party Dress,” he seems too often divided between a simple lack of interest and the desire to impose a factitious formality which tends to become, in detail, ludicrous. (“Acton, with a marked descent from his usual urbanity, invited her to mind her own business.”) His one successful venture into modern America is “Linda Condon,” a book in every respect exceptional, and there Linda herself imposes a complete and authentic formality upon her environment.


Circumstance too appears to have joined with temperament to hold him aloof from the general national, and even local, environment. He has described the society into which he was born—in 1880—as essentially, American, and so in the older sense it was; but today his Presbyterian grandfather’s house, where he spent his childhood amid flowers and green spaces, and in a quiet shattered only by the clanging bell calling the household to prayers at morning and evening, seems, for all that it stood—then!—on the outskirts of Philadelphia, as far removed as anything belonging to the English ‘eighties from the worlds of Al Capone or Zenith City. His father, in the United States Coast Survey, was rarely at home, and with an inattentive mother and in a household of mainly elderly people he was left very much to himself. More than most children he was alone, for illness kept him from school almost continuously into adolescence. He grew up “a timid, fattish boy,” much given to day-dreaming and the study of the more readable books discovered in his grandfather’s limited library. His earliest ambitions were artistic, and at seventeen he entered the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts as a student, to spend there four years of not very serious study. Then he came into possession of a considerable legacy, and was quickly to be found exploring Venice in “a private gondola with a Turkey-red carpet and my initials in silver on the gondolier’s sleeve.” Soon he was back in America with neither money nor prospects, and frequenting the “low company” of “The Lay Anthony,” until, realising the futility of his life, he set off on a walking-tour alone to think things over and met an English novelist, Mrs. Kingscote, who as “Lucas Cleeve” was for twenty years before the War a prolific producer of popular novels. Helping her correct some proofs, it occurred to him that he might at least do as well, and he returned home to try. The result was altogether bad, but he knew now the thing that he was born to do, and retired to a lonely farmhouse in the Virginia mountains. For a decade at least he worked steadily with neither the encouragement of editors nor the approval of his family. He married in 1907, came to Europe, and while living in Italy broke down beneath the strain of his constant unrewarded labours. For two years he was seriously ill. It was not until 1913 that his first work appeared in print — a slight series of “impressions” and “interludes” bearing literary, mannered titles. In the same year he returned to America and wrote “The Lay Anthony,” which appeared in 1914, to have a purely critical success; the first thousand copies were exempt from royalty, and the sales stopped at nine hundred. The “single financial activity” connected with the book that followed it, “Mountain Blood,” was “the privilege of later buying the copyright and plates.” Yet still he “was persisting in a mad determination to write novels, stories, papers,” and still editors remained shy, asking him for “more optimistic and vital stuff”and telling him that he hadn’t yet learned to write. But the corner was turned; more and more his work was accepted by the bigger, the better-known, magazines, and “The Three Black Pennys,” when it appeared in 1917, made his name familiar in America and Europe. Since then other books have come from him year by year, some better, some worse, all characteristic. His more personal existence has been quiet enough, centred about his house in West Chester, which itself, as he has told in “From an Old House,” he has made the symbol as well as the means of his spiritual isolation, leaving it to travel to Cuba, Mexico, or the West mainly on behalf of the books he hoped to write. His life, he says, has been given to his books under the compulsion of a “brutal obsession” stronger than existence itself; his best, he admits, has gone into them. They can, regarded thus as “the growth-products of a single spirit,” be considered from any, or all of several points of view. As illustrating, perhaps, a changing yet constant conflict between his puritan blood and the passionate nature of the artist; or as revealing a developing preference for the past as opposed to the present; or again technically to show the short—or shorter—story rather than the novel to be his proper form. But the essential examination would be that which most directly sought to show all his work as the presentment, varied and progressively purified, of his single basic theme. Only the early short stories collected in “The Happy End” (1919) would need to be discarded as, mainly, inventions whose aim was fulfilled when they “brought me, in times of varying difficulty, food.” For the rest, in any vital account, the word integrity would ring and ring again. “The Lay Anthony” (1914) cannot be matched with the later works, yet it contains the true Hergesheimer in embryo, the distinctive vision applied to a modern city background in a tale of integrity—a spiritual much more than physical chastity — preserved to the grave. “Mountain Blood” (1915) and “The Three Black Pennys” (1917) alike trace the nemesis of spiritual failure, a shattered integrity, in one case in the man’s own life, in the other through the generations. “Java Head” (1919) sets one integrity against another in dramatic conflict, a situation ultimately soluble only in death. In “Linda Condon” (1919) there is less of conflict than union, creative not on the biological but the metabiological plane; had Linda become Pleydon’s mistress in the flesh she could never have served to inspire his finest work. In “Cytherea” (1922) as in “The Party Dress” (1930) a failure in integrity ends in fatality. “The Bright Shawl” (1922) creates a situation when a man to save his honour must make even at the cost of his life what he knows can only be judged a futile gesture. “Balisand” (1924) shows an integrity preserved against all opposition to death itself, “Tampico” (1926) an integrity rising above all personal intentions, desires, safety. In the books of shorter stories, “Gold and Iron” (1918), “Quiet Cities” (1928), and “The Limestone Tree” (1931), the theme is repeated with many variations; it is implicit in the biographical Civil War studies of “Swords and Roses” (1929), the brief autobiographical sketches of “The Presbyterian Child” (1923), the travel book “San Cristobal de la Habana” (1920), and the personal “From an Old House” (1925).

Yet if there is similarity in inspiration there is continuous variety in presentation. There was a period, and a fruitful one, when he gave the fullest possible expression to what he has termed his “endless interest in the destructive qualities of the passion of love operating in a society not quite designed for it.” (He is indeed unique among modern novelists for the poignant intimacy of his love-scenes. “Brief as the lightning in the collied night”—but the more lovely for that inimical engulfing background, The meeting of Richard Bale and Lavinia Roderick is far from being to him, what so many today would make it, an incident of biological compulsion; rather, it is the highest possible intensification of their personalities, the peak of that individual tension which is the very essence of life.) He might make it, as in “Cytherea,” the symbol of an aspiration essentially spiritual though (like all the aspirations of men) embodied, born, in the flesh; he might make it, as in “Linda Condon” and “Balisand,” directly creative. More often it appears as simply destructive—necessarily. Loving, a man is still dependent upon another; his happiness “contingent upon accident.” Integrity must lie beyond love, be rooted in ultimate loneliness, the flower of an “essentially solitary” con-frontment of “insoluble mystery.” The knowledge is one the heart repudiates, and its acceptance is born perforce of the slow, steady, inexorable pressure of experience; only in the later books is love consciously relegated to the position of no more than a vehicle, a modus operandi. “The Bright Shawl,” concerned more with friendship than with love, might suggest the coining realisation, but not until “Tarnpico” does integrity, appear in absolute opposition to love, and transcending it. The book is, in all its essentials, intrinsically masculine. It is significant that where in “Cytherea” the woman merely died, in “The Party Dress” Chalke Ewing kills himself. At the end of “The Limestone Tree” the point is made absolutely plain: “The fact that he had seduced her was unimportant; marriage was not a retribution for passion; he had committed himself to a greater responsibility. He had, by an act more irrevocable than the promise of words, brought Susan to believe in his integrity. She depended on that, and he would not multiply the evasions and lies that made up the treachery of living.”


For several reasons Hergesheimer’s later work must be declared his best. The matter of style is not negligible. He has written scarcely a paragraph not attributable, immediately, to him. But his prose has matured, grown barer if no less fastidious. A valuable analysis might be made of the influence of his art studentship on his rendering of colours and surfaces and shapes, most noticeable in the early books, so much so in fact as to become definitely incongruous when applied to the comparatively simple subjects of “The Lay Anthony” and “Mountain Blood.” (“I described the stars, in what I hoped was a natural book about the Virginia mountains, as silver grapes on high ultra-blue arbours. I gazed rather doubtfully at that sentence, but it appeared to me so fine, so obviously art, that it was allowed to remain.”) “The Three Black Pennys” ushered in the period of historical backgrounds especially amenable to such conscious treatment. That, and the half-dozen volumes following it, perhaps to “Balisand,” must remain, for those most impressed by evident effort, his most impressive works. This is not to decry their merits, which are remarkable. It is only to assert that the later books are finer, even though less immediately striking because more truly organic and thus more even in texture, less violent in obtaining their effects. There is an absolute gain in the subdual of irrelevant elaboration of surface details, in the growing sureness of touch, the vivid concision, the perfect control of the rise and fall of feeling. Notable too is the changing use of dialogue. The earlier books were much more pictorial and static, the power more in the setting and situation than the spoken words; but in “Quiet Cities” and “The Limestone Tree” the dialogue is paramount—appropriately printed in solid paragraphs together with the linking descriptive sentences, it carries on the story with an intimacy, an immediacy, of human contact that reveals the characters beyond any possibility of descriptive or psychological analysis. The examples of Claes Mey in the second story of “Quiet Cities,” of James Sash in his declaration of love to Liza Rosier in “The Limestone Tree,” or Gabriel Sash in his long speech at the end of the same book, are not memorable exceptions but almost random instances.

These two books are certainly his masterpieces; they may be termed so even by a standard which does not easily adopt that abused word. Critical opinion appears curiously reluctant to admit any superior to “The Three Black Pennys,” yet while the underlying conception of that book was indeed magnificent, the execution, on its own high level, was uneven; the first of the three sections is by far the best. “Java Head,” after an exquisite opening, rapidly disintegrates. “Linda Condon,” certainly, is all but perfect; it is among the loveliest things in modern literature, but though control scarcely falters from first to last, it is relatively small in scope. “Cytherea” and “The Party Dress” are, in large parts, extremely unsatisfactory. “Balisand” and “Tampico,” both long tales, tend to be more convincing in certain brief, moving scenes than as wholes. The short story is, after all, one feels, his proper form, and his best work on the whole has been done within its limits. One remembers even “The Three Black Pennys” as a trio rather than a unity, while “The Bright Shawl” and the tales in “Gold and Iron,” all among his finest work, embody, single episodes rather than extended narratives. Both “Quiet Cities” and “The Limestone Tree” are volumes of short stories; they are not, however, fortuitous collections. The former consists of nine tales evoking the atmospheres, the moods, of as many American cities at dates ranging from 1750 to 1850. In each the spirit of a man is seen embodying or in conflict with some aspect of that character, preserving, or failing to preserve (there is not always victory), his integrity against tensions of peril or distress. Love appears frequently, but it is not the impelling force, and brings as often calamity, the shipwreck of honour, as reward. Every tale is finely done, with a complete objectivity, a quiet perfection, a subtle grasp of character, a profound and unobtrusive intimacy with the past. They have also continuity, setting this integrity, against the growing complication of American life, from the simple forest existence of Thomas Armit (who found the Pittsburgh of a thousand inhabitants too crowded for reasonable living) to the formal, aristocratic environment of Nicholas Elliset in Boston a hundred years later; and they are linked in a preliminary section comparable only to an overture in its skilful and lovely weaving of the main themes which are to follow, making explicit the ideas, the attitude, implicit in the stories themselves. Granted integrity, it might be summed up, the conditions of life are unimportant; every gain brings its loss, and the question remains open whether one balances the other:

I should have liked Thomas Armit’s bark cabin and his ingenious trading with the Delaware and Shawanese tribes. Lying precariously within the walls of Fort Pitt, the night glaring with fire arrows and hideous with screeches, was no worse, I was convinced, to him than the ills of the present seemed to me. I should rather, in other words, have a constitution to support hardship than exist debilitated by a protection against the physical elements of life. I would gladly give up the pleasures of art for the privilege of a sharp vigour. I would rather have remembered the bagpipes on Grant Hill, when Fort Duquesne fell, than any conceivable symphony.

In “Quiet Cities,” as earlier, integrity appears as if not selfish certainly beyond any common social imperative. But “The Limestone Tree” at least points to “obligations greater than any individual necessity,” and becomes, consequently, wider if not profounder in its implications. It presents in its ten stories the growth of a tradition of honour. Nothing could be plainer than this intention. In the first story, set towards the end of the eighteenth century, Gabriel Sash, hunter in the wilds, comes out of the woods to marry Nancy Abel and settle at a small trading town. Eventually his unappeasable desire for the forests overwhelms him, and though she has borne him a child he leaves her to return to his hunting-grounds. In the last story John Dixon Folkes, a family connection, has come from Paris to stay with the Sashes in Kentucky, has seduced his cousin Susan Abel, and intends to desert her and return to Paris. Psychologically the situation is identical with that of the first story. But one day, out in the quiet woods, old Gabriel Sash, grandson of the first Gabriel, talks to him of the Sashes and Abels of the past, until

a sharp unhappiness overtook John; it changed into a definite sense of the insecurity of life; almost nothing in it, he discovered, was dependable. The elements, the quality, of destruction in himself were appalling. There was, for example, a disturbing resemblance between that first Gabriel’s unspeakable mother and the divine Celanie Pindar. They were—worlds apart—equally indifferent to all responsibility; to the decency of order. Gabriel Sash, in consequence, had lost himself in the darkness of the forest. He had returned, like a savage, to the life of savages and of wild beasts. Well, Paris, in its own manner, was a forest. The blood of his mother was restless in him; suddenly he was afraid of it; he was conscious of other influences: John Dixon Folkes viewed the slow, painful accumulation of a tradition; he had looked back into the past, at the bare lives of his ancestors, and seen them change with the changing state, he had watched them change Kentucky.. The lives of his ancestors, one following the other, passionate and courageous men, generations of women with pure hearts, had created at least a substitute for a missing safety: they had learned how to meet disaster. They were calm, established in their arbitrary conceptions of right and wrong, in the face of death. The men and women whose beings had gone into his being had left a tangible stronghold—like the stockade at Harrodstown—ready for him to occupy; he could not, there, be readily destroyed.

Thus, out of the past, Hergesheimer has created, with the power, the vividness of the consummate artist, a value for our present nourishment, our instant need. For we do need it in this safe, this “sanitary present” which would set, too often, our individual comforts above higher obligations. It may not be unique, still his statement of it is an absolute contribution. He, his books, have something to give not found elsewhere. They have, too, a larger content of sheer beauty, a smaller proportion of failure, than any other living American writer can show. The American past, the dead past, is made luminous and living in his pages; it is made more, it is made immediate, and the present is illuminated thereby. We perceive that the basic human problems are eternal, that the explications of science are at best but superficial and incomplete, that the true solutions must be sought always in men’s hearts, in an individual bravery, a personal courage. “Man dies alone; he must perfect himself alone.”


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